The Opportunity of the Christian University’s Future
A Christianity which will bear witness to God’s Word in Jesus will be a speaking, thinking, arguing, debating Christianity, which will not be afraid to engage in intellectual and philosophical contest with the prevailing dogmas of its day.
— Oliver O’Donovan[i] University of Edinburgh
The Christian university must be re-established on a firmer foundation. Leaders of our older Christian colleges often failed to see the threat to the religious mission of their institutions because cultural Christianity still set the moral conditions in which they lived. A prevalent cultural Christianity prevented careful consideration of the interaction between faith and scholarship. The faith was taken for granted rather than cultivated and engaged.
Christian colleges and universities have to do more than simply require students to attend chapel while offering the same education that could be obtained more cheaply with taxpayer subsidies at a state institution. That has been the usual formula and it has failed. Christian higher education must be distinctive, or it will cease to exist completely. We must choose to pursue our business with Christ fully in mind. We must not segregate the faith into extracurricular programs. Instead, we must offer a distinctively Christian education.
The true Christian university integrates faith with learning. Integrating faith and learning means that professors and students actively consider what the faith might mean to politics, economics, history, law, literature, and many other disciplines. The goal is to cultivate Christian minds as vigorously as we seek to develop Christian hearts and hands. When the Christian faith is at the very center of the enterprise of education and scholarship, then the university will make a distinctive contribution and successfully resist the secularization process that has captured so many institutions founded on the hopes of believers.
Any misunderstanding of what it means to pursue authentically Christian scholarship should be corrected at the outset. Christian scholarship is not a straitjacket that aims to limit and constrain. It is, instead, the type of learning that expresses genuine curiosity about the world from a Christian perspective. Christian scholarship covers the academic world fully and asks more questions than secular learning does. Christian scholarship asks questions like, “What if the Gospel is true? What if law does have some divine origin?” More generally, as George Marsden has suggested, such scholarship gives the freedom to inquire: “Suppose someone believed in God, how would the assumptions or conclusions of our discipline look different?”[ii] To be free to ask such questions in a community of learning is to open a window in a previously airless building.
The world of academia is like any other. If no attempt is made to compete, the result is automatic forfeiture. For too long, Christians have forfeited the field of academics. We have allowed the academy to be ideologically captured in many instances. In the most elite institutions, it is far more acceptable to argue from Marxist, feminist, or green perspectives than it is to suggest that Christianity has real intellectual content and deserves to be taken seriously. We often see our young people influenced for the worse by “tenured radicals,” to use Roger Kimball’s phrase.[iii] It is time to stop failing to show up. Though we sometimes act as though we do not believe it, the kingdom of Christ extends even to the ivory tower.
[iii] Tenured Radicals was the title of Kimball’s 1993 book on radical academics published by Harper & Row.